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McCarthyism and the Crucible

America has had its share of turmoil, as has any nation, and this troubled past was no random occurrence. No, many – though not all - of the issues in America’s past stemmed from, or were inflamed by the personal ambitions of certain individuals or groups willing to sacrifice the rights of others to achieve their own goals. Arthur Miller, in his play, The Crucible, recognized this tradition, a tradition common to much of American history – a tradition of the exploitation of paranoia and fear to obtain personal or collective ambitions, be they power, love, or money, and by extending his play, it becomes possible to witness this same tradition not only in the 1950’s but also – to some extent – now, in the early 21st century.

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The Crucible

The Crucible, perhaps Arthur Miller’s best known play, is – taken at face value – a story of persecution set during the Salem Witch Trials. The play begins with a young child who has allegedly fallen ill after dancing in the woods lying in bed, while around her gather a host of characters, including Reverend Parris, John Proctor, Reverend Hale, and Abigail Williams. Evident from the beginning is the attitude of paranoia and the desire to seek supernatural explanations, to which the Reverend Parris says “There be no unnatural cause here… Mr. Hale will confirm that.”(Miller, p. 9) Even in this case though, it begins to become evident that self-interest is governing the opinions of Salem, as Parris desires to believe this because the “afflicted” child is his daughter, and any hint of occult practices souls potentially destroy him. As the scene advances, the stage is set for more self-centered persecution, when Abigail (Abby) clearly divulges to John Proctor her desire to become his wife, and Proctor and another landowner – Putnam – clash over land that Putnam insists is his (a man named Giles later dies rather than surrender the rights to his land). As the first scene ends, Abby and her “afflicted” cousin Betty begin to cry out names of those they’ve seen “dancing with the devil”, touching off the persecution to come – persecution motivated by desires to achieve personal ends at any cost – even at the cost of human lives.

Over the remainder of the play, the selfish desires of individuals in Salem – namely Abby – are played out in a highly destructive manner. The girls begin their rampage by accusing only the poor to do members of Salem’s society, effectively cleansing the undesirables from their midst, yet eventually moving on to higher profile targets. Abby, in order to remove John Proctor’s wife from the picture, has Marry Warren – a servant of the Proctors – stick a needle in a doll which Mary proceeds to give to Elizabeth Proctor. Abby then accuses Elizabeth’s spirit of stabbing her with a pin, with the doll supposedly serving as evidence that this had happened. Thus Abby, with her obsessive belief that John Proctor secretly loves her still and that he is “singing secret hallelujahs that [his] wife will hang!” (Miller, p. 152) effectively accuses his wife of witchcraft and has her arrested. In doing this, Abby exploits the fears of a superstitious and religious society for her own personal gain, hoping to gain herself the husband she seeks (though her plan fails when John, in an attempt to save his wife, accuses Abby of being a whore, only to have his plan backfire, leaving Abby no choice but to accuse him, culminating in his hanging for witchcraft). Even though her plan failed, it is still evident that Abby was exploiting the paranoia (which she had aided in creating) to accomplish an incredibly selfish goal, a tradition apparent during the McCarthy era, undoubtedly leading Miller to include it in his play.

Connections to McCarthyism

In addition to illustrating the aforementioned tradition, The Crucible also notes other issues with McCarthy-style movements, such as the excessive suspicion of friends and neighbors and the excessive absolutism. Both of these were effects of the Red Scare, with friends often turning on one another and politicians dealing in absolutes to simplify their own points. An example of friends turning on one another in the play is that of Rebecca Nurse, who was a pious and respected woman in the community. Still, once the hysteria began she was accused, leading John Proctor to say “It’s hard to think so pious a woman could secretly be a Devil’s bitch after 70 years of such good prayer.” (Miller p. 64) To this Reverend Hale is only able to say that it is a strange time and that nothing is as it seems, attempting to defend the paranoia as legitimate despite evidence (in the form of verbal support) to the contrary. Absolutism is also evident in incidences of paranoia such as the witch trials or McCarthyism. McCarthy, for example, once said that “There’s only one Communist party…” and that the party operating in America is the same as that operating overseas ordering American soldiers’ “brains blown out by Communist machine guns.” Meanwhile, The Crucible is abounding with examples of absolutism, such as when justice Danforth says “…we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good… Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.” (Miller, p. 94) Both of these statements speak to this idea of absolute good and evil, an idea that often manifests itself in times of paranoia in order to simplify a situation by clearly defining sides. By including somewhat exaggerated examples of these traits of mass hysteria, Miller means (and succeeds at) getting the reader to question such fallacies such as absolutism, and such issues as rapidly turning on friends and neighbors, effectively fulfilling his purpose in writing The Crucible.

In writing The Crucible, Arthur Miller hoped to draw attention to the absurdity of McCarthyism and the related panic and suspicion. As he put it, he hoped to overcome “the concept of an America where such self-discoveries were pressed out of people…” , yet The Crucible was not widely applauded at the time, as many critics “were nervous about validating a work that was so unkind to the sanctified procedural principles that underlay the hunt for reds.” The play never meant to disguise its purpose, for within the published version of the script Miller inserted a passage which illustrates the pros and cons of using the Salem Witch Trials as an analogy for McCarthyism, in particular noting differences such as the fact that there were no witches yet there were communists, though they weren’t the threat they were made out to be. Still, it is in part this very fault that aids Miller’s point, for The Crucible is an exaggerated and somewhat simplified look at the McCarthy panic, making it obvious who was truly evil and who was good (or at least less evil), and such exaggeration allows injustice to be recognized more easily, allowing comparisons to be more easily drawn between the Salem witch trials and McCarthy-era hearings. Once more, by creating these comparisons Miller was inducing the reader/viewer to consider if such issues appeared in their own lives, much as they did in McCarthyism, with his ultimate purpose being the destruction of such evils.

The tradition which can be noted in The Crucible of the exploitation of paranoia for personal gain can also be noted throughout much of the Red Scare. Richard Nixon, for example, built his political career around being “tough” on Communism, effectively winning several elections by running smear campaigns against his “soft” opponents who were “communist sympathizers”, destroying their chances at victory in an era hostile towards supposed “commies”. Joseph McCarthy – the one who gives the era its name - earned himself national recognition (and a paying fan base) when he began his persecution of alleged Communists within the U.S. State Department. He effectively earned himself dangerous (though temporary) levels of power, at one point having the power to destroy others’ political careers on a whim, though even he was only able to maintain his power because he in turn received Republican backing when they saw that he was destroying the Democrats. Thus it is evident both in Miller’s writing and in the McCarthy era itself that individuals and groups were willing to exploit paranoia and ruin the lives of others for no purpose other than to earn power for themselves.

A Cautionary Tale

What makes Miller’s writing and the lessons of McCarthyism so relevant is the fact that issues from these eras still surface today, even though people ought to have learned from their mistakes. Many people prefer to believe that McCarthyism was “a mental aberration, a moment of national madness that deviated sharply from the otherwise commonsensical trajectory of American history.” Unfortunately, by taking the past as a mere set of facts and ignoring its significance, people allow historical injustices to repeat themselves. For example, post 9/11/01-America has been living in a state of unrest, with many apparent aspects of a fear based society like that of the McCarthy era. For example, President George W. Bush once said “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” This is an example of absolutism, a logical fallacy present in eras of paranoia such as that of the Second Red Scare, as evidenced earlier in this paper. Furthermore, there have been many recent issues with the government violating certain freedoms in the interest of “national security”, using this excuse to obtain phone records and even to support the wiretapping of individuals without a warrant. Also, Americans are constantly blasted with patriotic images and taught of the inherent evil of terrorists who apparently constantly threaten the well-being of Americans. By constantly feeding the American public messages such as these, the government creates a culture of anxiety more open to the idea of supporting sacrifices in the name of national security, effectively garnering the government more power and temporarily ensuring the Republican parties dominance, as the Democrats are supposedly not tough enough on terror, which is also reminiscent of the Red Scare. From a historical perspective, one can see in this culture evidence of trends present in McCarthyism and similar bouts of paranoia, and for this reason it is of critical importance that people study the past to better the future, rather than let such exploitation of power continue, even to the extent it does today.

In America – the “land of liberty, democracy, and freedom”, it is all too easy to oversimplify the nation; turning America into something it is not is more detrimental than acknowledging the country’s history of injustice, class conflict, and suffering. Many people take the past as a truth, yet often fail to divine greater meaning from this truth, and even if they find such meaning they tend to distance it from their own reality. This separation of past and present permits history to repeat itself, allowing potentially resolved issues to surface anew. McCarthyism, for example, is now often recognized as a highly unjust practice, yet people still fail to recognize the symptoms of a “new McCarthyism” present today. As has been established, throughout American history there has been a tradition whereby individuals and groups exploit preexisting paranoia to achieve their own ambitions, at any cost, recognizing the often selfish nature of human beings. Arthur Miller in his play The Crucible recognized this tradition, and drew attention to it along with the other injustices of McCarthyism. While these injustices are all but established fact nowadays, many people fail to recognize these very same injustices in the current American government, allowing this government to earn itself power by reinforcing a culture of fear. While the injustices are not as severe as in many past cases (terrorists do pose some threat, for example), they are still evident, and for this reason it is important for individuals to examine the wrongs of the past (such ass McCarthyism) in order to recognize and eliminate the same wrongs from their own lives, no longer allowing history to repeat itself.

References

  • 1. Nash, G.B., The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution. 1979: Harvard University Press Cambridge, Mass.
  • 2. Burns, J.M., Presidential government: The crucible of leadership. Vol. 75. 1973: Houghton Mifflin.
  • 3. L'vov, B., The potentialities of the graphite crucible method in atomic absorption spectroscopy. Spectrochimica Acta Part B: Atomic Spectroscopy, 1969. 24(1): p. 53-70.
  • 4. Eliade, M., The forge and the crucible: The origins and structure of alchemy. 1978: University of Chicago Press.
  • 5. Moore, D.S., the crucible of cultural politics: reworking” development” in Zimbabwe's eastern highlands. American Ethnologist, 1999. 26(3): p. 654-689.
  • 6. Furukawa, Y., et al., Stoichiometric LiTaO 3 single crystal growth by double crucible Czochralski method using automatic powder supply system. Journal of crystal growth, 1999. 197(4): p. 889-895.
  • 7. Williamson, J., The Crucible of Race: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation: Black-White Relations in the American South since Emancipation. 1984: Oxford University Press.
  • 8. Rumbaut, R.G., The crucible within: Ethnic identity, self-esteem, and segmented assimilation among children of immigrants. International Migration Review, 1994: p. 748-794.
  • 9. Rosteck, T., See it now confronts McCarthyism: Television documentary and the politics of representation. 1994: University of Alabama Press.
  • 10. Solberg, W.U. and R.W. Tomilson, Academic McCarthyism and Keynesian economics: the Bowen controversy at the University of Illinois. History of Political Economy, 1997. 29(1): p. 55-81.
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  • 15. Purifoy, L.M., Harry Truman's China policy: McCarthyism and the diplomacy of hysteria, 1947-1951. 1976: New Viewpoints.
  • 16. Klehr, H. and R. Radosh, The Amerasia Spy Case: Prelude to McCarthyism. 1996: Univ of North Carolina Press.
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  • 18. Theoharis, A.G., Chasing spies: How the FBI failed in counterintelligence but promoted the politics of McCarthyism in the Cold War years. 2002: Ivan R. Dee.
  • 19. Doherty, T.P., Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism, and American Culture. 2003: Columbia University Press.
  • 20. Freeland, R.M., Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism; Foreign Policy, Security, 1946-1948. 1971: Knopf.
  • 21. Price, D.H., Threatening anthropology: McCarthyism and the FBI’s surveillance of activist anthropologists. 2004: Duke University Press.
  • 22. Cole, D., The new McCarthyism: Repeating history in the war on terrorism. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 2003. 38.
  • 23. Schrecker, E., Many are the crimes: McCarthyism in America. 1998: Princeton University Press Princeton, NJ.


History | Drama | United States


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